As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the First World War on this Remembrance Sunday, I’ve been reading back to notes from my journal – August 2011……
Whilst visiting family in the Netherlands, we spent a couple of days in the regions of Belgium where significant battles took place during WWI. We wanted to learn more about this period of history.
We stayed in Ypres, which was where one of the main roads to the Front Line began. Thousands of British and Commonwealth troops marched out through this town.
The Menin Gate in Ypres is a memorial to The Missing, dedicated to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in the Ypres Salient and whose graves are unknown.
There are over fifty four thousand names carved on various sides of the monument.
The crowds began to gather, the roads were closed and the ceremony took place, with the Last Post played and flowers laid. An incredible experience and amazing to think that this short ceremony has taken place at 8pm every evening since 1928, except during the Second World War. I’m honoured to have experienced it.
The next morning we set off for our day of First World War history. The book and map that I had borrowed, were very useful and informative. It did take a while to get an idea of distances on the map. Our sat nav was no use to us today as we wanted to just ticky tour around. We went along one road where I was looking for a particular junction and side road, but I felt we had gone too far. When we turned around and drove from the opposite direction I saw the junction straight away.
“Vancouver Corner” had a stunning tall monument with a soldier’s head and arms on the top, as memorial to Canadian soldiers who fought and died in the area. We got out and looked around. We then drove down back lanes, through open countryside and farmland. There were lots of fields of maize corn. But small road side cemeteries and monuments.
The second place we visited was “Tyne Cot” cemetery, the largest Commonwealth military cemetery anywhere in the world. We went into the visitors centre first which had informative displays and artefacts. The glassed in area of ground, beneath the glass cabinets gave a particular impression, once farmland with tools, then just grey mud with war rubble. The walk along the side wall of the cemetery showed the scale of the place, then inside to walk amongst the graves. It started as a dressing station in October 1917 when 354 burials took place. These are the randomly spaced graves in the centre by the Cross of Sacrifice. There are 11,954 graves there, 8,367 of which are unidentified British and Commonwealth servicemen. The grave stones are identical stone and size, with names and regiments where known, others are simply marked “Known unto God”.
From Tyne Cot, we drove on to Passchendale and visited the Memorial Museum, which is housed inside an old manor house. That was also very interesting. I liked the fact the events and history was covered from all sides, Allies, German and local. And all interactive displays were in four languages, English, German, French and Dutch. Whilst talking to our Dutch relatives, it was obvious that their history of WWI has different emphasis to my British view. We often forget that aspect of history.
We then stopped at Hill 60 or Sanctuary Wood, where there was an odd little museum with lots and lots of old bits and pieces, wartime relics all jumbled together. There were fascinating photograph machines to look into, to see still photos reflected as 3D images of the town of Ypres, its destruction during the war years, But the remarkable part was the original trenches outside in the woodland. The trenches and the shell holes, even in our summer, some filled with rain water and mud. What would they have been like in winter and constant rain or snow. How did the men live in those conditions?
We drove back into Ypres, coming in via the southern gate, with the river below battlements and another cemetery. We went into “In Flanders Fields” museum, which is in the Cloth Hall in the main square. It was a excellent exhibition, for all ages, lots of information and interactive elements. As we went in, we each took an auto generated card, listing the name and nationality of a real person who lived at 1914. Between us we had a British serviceman, a Dutch nurse and a local Belgium girl. As we moved through the museum, there were stations to enter the card and get an update on your person as the war progressed. My local girl became a teacher. Again, it was fascinating to see the war depicted for all sides, German, local as well as the British and Commonwealth view point.
It feels wrong to say we enjoyed this trip, but as well as the emotion of the loss, destruction and cost of human life, it was a positive, worthwhile trip where we certainly gained insight into the reality of those four years of war.
My lasting memories of the whole area are the graves, the cemeteries at the side of the road, or down a footpath at the edge of a field. Also of poppies and cornflowers in the hedgerows.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.”